My father tries to shift into second gear. Henry’s gearbox, however, replied with an aggressive grinding noise.
»Shift down, Shift Down, SHIFT DOWN« I yell at my dad. My father tried once more. The vehicle had passed the 20 mph mark and clearly, second gear was no option anymore.
It was this very instance that a strange sense of calmness enveloped me and for a brief moment time slowed down. I was floating in a surreal space simulating in my head how we would understeer, rupture through these concrete pillars and dive head on into the deep gorge. »Today, I am going to die.«
Nairobi, Kenya – March 26th, 2017
Mileage: 10.945 km
We left Karen Camp in our vehicle which my father has baptised Henry the day after we joyfully picked up our visas for Ethiopia. After an enriching visit to Karen Blixen’s Museum the danish author of Out of Africa and many other titles, we partnered up with Riaan, an adventurous motorcyclist from South Africa. We both had the intention of entering Ethiopia along the old Lake Turkana route. We got along well despite the slight size different of our vehicles. Riaan nicknamed us Piki-Piki (Swahili for motorcycle) while we called him Bwana (Swahili for boss). In fact, this contradicting combination came in extremely handy for the both of us. Riaan was thankful that he could unload most of his heavy luggage onto our truck while Riaan could scout ahead and report back to us of possible constrictions.
We left Nairobi with little traffic by escaping onto the city’s ring roads and soon after the mighty landscapes of Kenya befell upon ourselves once more. Giant mountain domes that would even make Yosemite’s mighty El Capitan jealous. It was so beautiful to drive through. The road was brand new and it was a blast driving on fresh tarmac while enjoying the view of endless ridges dance like waves of an ocean alongside us. We camped close to Mount Kenya and again we were rewarded with a mesmerising sunrise the morning after.
From here we headed west towards Lake Turkana. Unsure of what to expect we were completely surprised by the phenomenal gravel road. And so in solitude, we drove further inland. We zoomed through the rising heat of the Chalbi Desert and welcomed the shoreside breeze of a turquoise lake that miraculously withstands the excruciating heat of the sun. As we descended to the world’s largest desert lake we soaked in the formidable view of a sun disappearing behind Martian-like stratovolcanoes bursting from Lake Turkana’s waters.
Northern Kenya’s diverse landscapes are unlike any other we have seen so far. Deserts range from large tracts of scrub, dissected by dry river beds and peppered with acacia trees. Massive volcanos like Mt Kulal and Mt Marsabit climb from barren plains to provide forested havens for humans and animals.
Moyale to Addis Ababa – March 30th, 2017
Mileage: 11.273 km
We entered Ethiopia via Moyale. The most chaotic boarder crossing we had experienced to date. We could have entered Ethiopia without paying a visit at immigration or customs. There were no signs for either office nor did anyone guard the border nor stop us. No one showed us where to go. Instead, we eventually stopped and asked for directions. We passed both offices miles ago. We turned around. Both offices were well hidden in a small side street. Of course, they were on lunch break and so we sat in our car waiting. Yet another testimony to my patience.
The road leading up to Addis Abeba via Yabelo and Hawassa is decent for the first 300km. The Chinese have done a wonderful job. Despite the thick collar of humans throttling the roadside, we made good time – that is until the tarmac ended and the number 1 national road of Ethiopia turned into a slugfest of mud, ruts, trucks, taxis, motorbikes, humping donkeys, wondering sheep, gobbling goats, dust, then more dust and more idiotic driving. I have once again checked my and my father’s stock of patients – it is completely empty and I am certain that I have introduced road rage to Ethiopia after hearing from a Chinese construction worker that these horrible road conditions will haunt us for another 150km until we reach Hawassa. It was 4 pm at that time, the time we had hoped to reach Hawassa. The aggressive yelling of »you, you, you!« and »give me money« alike by young children left us little room to take a break and so we decided to continue well into the night to reach our planned destination. We were barely averaging 15 mph on the most dangerous road so far. In addition, it is a street brawl with every living thing, the bigger the vehicle, the more reckless the driver behind the wheel. It just doesn’t make sense to overtake on a blind rise or assume the oncoming traffic will veer off into the veld if you overtake. One of the bigger problems, however, are the farm animals “grassing” on tarmac roads. Especially donkeys, that love to block traffic completely ignoring any kind of aggressive honking and/or frustrated hand waving.
My father and I are stunned. We are silent in the Unimog, each of us watching out for the next threat to our mortal existence. »Watch it!« my father screams as another toddling donkey enters the middle of the road as I nudge a cow out of a cud-chewing coma. And all of a sudden we are subject to the threatening stares of Ethiopians again, yelling »you! you! you!«, »Give me Money!«. Some even had the audacity to through rocks at us. But eventually, we arrived in Hawassa. It was 11 pm.
The road to Addis Abeba is a continuation of the masses of people on either side, the road was acceptable after the stretch from Yebela that has much lowered our expectations. We have become somewhat accustomed to the potholes in potholes and lunatic drivers. As we neared the city there w a fortunate change in the houses – more sophisticated, smarter, the animals fatter, less Ben Hur chariots with donkeys and a toll road appears out of absolutely nowhere. But we happily paid the 20 Birr toll fee to enjoy a 3-lane Autobahn-like highway and after all arrived in Addis safe and sound. Our home for the next nights was Wim’s Holland House – an overland hotspot in the middle of the city. Water is pumped into the geyser when needed, electricity is sporadic, wifi is regulated heavily by the Ethiopian Government. In some cases, the internet is blocked for all apple devices due to a manhunt in the city. iPhones are apparently preferred by criminals thanks to their superb encryption. But I mustn’t complain.
The noise of a waking Capital starts around 4 am. Barking dogs, crowing roosters, followed by an echoing duel between the Muslim and Christian prayers – an airway competition, it seems, of who can sing longer and louder through scratchy monster speakers. The Christians won, they went on for another 4 hours whereas the Muslims kindly stopped after a few minutes. We could only hope to flee from this city as fast as possible.
It’s our 6th day in Addis. Applying for a Sudanese transit visa was unexpectedly complicated (for more information, see here). However, we managed to obtain one and simultaneously had the pleasure to meet Florian from Paris who is backpacking to Cairo. We were more than happy to take him along in our Unimog. It was Friday night and we were celebrating the receipt of our Egyptian and Sudanese Visa … it’s a 14-day transit visa for Sudan followed by a 30-day visa for Egypt. We would finally be able to leave and head towards the much-anticipated mountains in the north. Two days to reach Bahir Dar via the dangerous Blue Nile Gorge, followed by a few days in Lalibela and then the Simien Mountains. We were finally closing off the Addis Chapter. What started out so horribly might eventually turn around in the north of Ethiopia.
Blue Nile Gorge – Apil 8th 2017
Mileage: 12.166 km
After a lost week in Addis Abeba due to inevitable visa applications at both the Egyptian and Sudanese embassy Florian, my father and I were finally looking forward leaving the noisy and over-populated capital of Ethiopia. We got up early to avoid traffic, the heat, and cover as much of the 650 km leg to Bahir Dar as possible. We were most thankful for close-to-normal tarmac roads. We were only occasionally hindered by annoying speed bumps through the mostly calm highlands north of Addis Abeba.
After approximately 200 km we arrived at the magnificent Blue Nile Gorge. A massive gorge with towering cliffs of granite appears deep below. Loose gravel and rocks make driving down into the gorge a bit tentative, and so we pull over for a photo break and to cool down the breaks. We debate to take a break for lunch but then conclude that we do so on the other side of the gorge.
Some 2 km away from the Nile bridge I noticed my fathers foot pushing the break paddle in much further than usually. I subtly ask him to shift into lower gear and only press the breaks as little as possible to avoid overheating. We were only driving at 10-15 mph. As we continue downhill on twisting roads into the 800 m deep Nile bed we encounter terrifying sights of petrol trucks, and Busses that had either fallen from the cliff or crashed into the rocks. This is by far the most dangerous road that we had encountered.
»I can’t break!« My father suddenly shouts while stepping onto the break with full force. Nothing happens. We were going reasonably slow but the road continued to climb down a steep slope.
My father tries to shift into second gear. Henry’s gearbox, however, replied with an aggressive grinding noise.
»Shift down, Shift Down, SHIFT DOWN« I yell at my dad. My father tried once more. The vehicle had passed the 20 mph mark and clearly, second gear was no option anymore. I continued to stare back and forth between our speedometer and the road. 30 mph… 35 mph… 40 mph… we surpassed 50 mph so swiftly that I had trouble fathoming what nightmare was about to befall on us. »Was this really happening?« I wondered. The sight of distant concrete pillars coming closer by the second, however, brought me back to my senses rapidly. Pillars marked with black and yellow arrows pointing to an acute hairpin turn.
It was this very instance that a strange sense of calmness enveloped me and for a brief moment time slowed down. I was floating in a surreal space simulating in my head how we would understeer, rupture through these concrete pillars and dive head on into the deep gorge. »Today, I am going to die.« I said to myself in a very calm voice. Then something very peculiar happened and to this day I have no logical explanation. Just meters before the hairpin turn I reach out for my fathers steering wheel and slam the car into a neighbouring rock wall next to the road. We scratched the wall with such momentum that we were vehemently through into our seat-belts. The front right tire exploded instantly. I clearly heard the popping noise and the smell of burnt rubber. Almost simultaneously did the front left tire. The car crashed down on its remaining axis. The front axis and steering lever ripped to pieces. With no control of the car left, we shot diagonally back onto the road coming ever closer to the hairpin turn. This time, however, the broken front axis buried itself deep into the tarmac road meters away from the sharp turn and the car finally came to rest. All of us were silently staring at the gorge, the engine was still running, a distinct hissing noise came from below the bonnet and an annoying beeping noise from the dashboard filled the quite cabin. After a moment of self-reflection, my father turned off the engine. He turned toward us and asked us in a very calm voice if everybody was ok. Luckily no-one had been injured. My heart, however, was still beating vigorously and with trembling fingers, I climbed out on the driver’s side of the car. The passenger door had been dented to such an extent that we couldn’t open it anymore.
The sight of Henry’s state broke my heart. I cannot conceive the pain my dad must have been experiencing at this very moment. All those adventures to come, the sights and memories. Hopeful dreams of a unique journey along our long way home shattered in an instant all because of a mechanical breaking failure. Yet all that we have to be thankful for that we didn’t drop down that canyon. We are after all still alive. Not a single scratch. And yet I, myself, have built such emotional attachment to Henry, that the loss of our car outweighed our well-being. Namibia to Ethiopia across the most memorable eight thousand miles of my life. What a remarkable achievement in itself. Would it really have to end here? We were so very hopeful to come home in one piece. But there would be no continuing. And so, heartbreakingly we all realised that we had no other option but to abandon ship, abandon Henry after all. He did so well across the most challenging of terrains. But there would be no more exploring with Henry and so, after hours of packing we sad our farewells to Henry, and left the car in the hands of the locals who promised to protect the car until we come back.
So much gained, so much lost, these are feelings that still shoot through my mind when I think of this tragic event. With the exceptional help of other Europeans and UN officials living in Addis my father managed to return the car to the capital with a toe-truck. Henry’s fate is yet to be determined as it sits in a safe parking spot of a Dutch car mechanic. Unfortunately, for my father this trip ends here for now. Most understandably the only thing he wants is to return home. I can only imagine the relief and joy of his welcoming return to his wife, to his friends and family, to some danish hygge and all those who are surely awaiting him in wonderful Hamburg.
For myself, however, this Odyssey does not end. Not yet at least. With my fathers blessing I will continue the route that my father and I have set out to do. A route planned so meticulously. And regardless of what will try to stop me, I will carry out this journey for my father, for myself, for Henry. With little else than a backpack I must find my way back to Hamburg across Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan and finally Israel before stepping onto European main land in Italy. After all, I have had the most exceptional teacher of all. One that has opened my eyes to the fascinating beauty of Africa, taught me the value of travelling and the virtue of exploring the unknown with my eyes wide open!